Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Wolf Releases Emergency Funds to PA Schools

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Gov. Tom Wolf will release six months of school funding. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)
Gov. Tom Wolf will release six months of school funding. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Schools and social-service agencies finally are going to get some state funds, but the budget battles aren't over yet.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday said he would issue line-item vetoes on portions of the budget approved by the Legislature late last week. Calling it "a ridiculous effort in budget futility," Wolf called on legislators to return to Harrisburg and finish the job.

"In the meantime, I'm vetoing their $95 million cut to education," says Wolf. "I'm also vetoing other items that they don't pay for in their so-called budget."

Wolf said he would release six months of state funding for schools and social-service agencies on an emergency basis, as well as federal education dollars that have not been disbursed.

The governor and Legislature had agreed to a budget compromise that passed in the Senate but wasn't brought up for a final vote in the House before legislators went home for the holidays.

Deborah Gordon Klehr, director of the Education Law Center, says the money being released by the governor does include $30 million in increases for early childhood and special education.

"This is not the full amount that had been agreed to between the governor and the Legislature earlier," she says. "But it reflects an understanding that our schools cannot remain open without any funding."

Klehr says even the compromise budget was far short of the amount of funding that schools need, but she calls it a step in the right direction.

"Everyone needs to return to Harrisburg and to the negotiating table immediately," she says. "A full budget must be passed as soon as possible that makes the needed investment in our children and reflects Pennsylvania's values."

With no state funding coming in, school districts statewide were forced to borrow more than $430 million over the last two months to keep their doors open.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Philadelphia Mayor Revises ICE Policy

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

The revised policy is supposed to apply only to violent felons. (ICE/ Wikimedia Commons)
The revised policy is supposed to apply only to violent felons. (ICE/ Wikimedia Commons)
PHILADELPHIA - With just two weeks left in office, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter on Tuesday signed an executive order that advocates say threatens immigrants held in city jails with deportation.

The policy means the city will inform federal immigration officials when immigrants with criminal records or deemed to be a threat will be released. According to Nicole Kligerman, community organizer of the New Sanctuary Movement, ICE agents will then meet the immigrants as they exit the jail.

"This rolls back the historic policy that he signed in April 2014 that put Philadelphia on the cutting edge of the immigrants' rights movement, and is really a stab in the back to immigrants and their supporters in our city," says Kligerman.

Mayor-elect Jim Kenney has said he will reinstate the city's noncooperation policy when he takes office on Jan. 4.

The revised policy is supposed to apply only to those convicted of violent felonies or suspected of terrorism. But in the past, many immigrants have been separated from their families and deported over old, relatively minor convictions.

Other municipalities have declared themselves "sanctuary cities" and refused to cooperate with immigration authorities. Kligerman says this reversal in Philadelphia may play into the growing anti-immigrant climate in U.S. politics.

"This move by Mayor Nutter sends a very troubling message to other cities and towns in Pennsylvania and across the country who have been looking to Philadelphia for its leadership," says Kligerman.

The policy change was first announced in early November. Kligerman credits advocates with delaying the change, and preventing deportations, for six weeks.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Pricing Carbon to Clean the Air

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

A new report projects big declines in Pennsylvania's agricultural production if climate change continues. (Brenna Fitzpatrick/flickr.com)
A new report projects big declines in Pennsylvania's agricultural production if climate change continues. (Brenna Fitzpatrick/flickr.com)
PHILADELPHIA - A business group has released a report highlighting ways carbon pricing can be used to help meet the goals of the Clean Power Plan.

The report, called "Carbon Pricing Works," was commissioned by Pennsylvania Businesses for a Healthy Climate and said that a market-based system can not only help reduce pollution but create jobs and spur economic development.

Jamie Gauthier, executive director of the Sustainable Business Network in Philadelphia, said carbon pricing means including health and environmental costs in the price of coal, oil and gas.

"In many states," she said, "the fees from carbon pricing have been used towards research and development for clean-energy technologies and towards helping people to lower their energy cost."

The report said adopting a carbon pricing plan now would help the state reach the Clean Power Plan's requirement of a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

Gauthier pointed to Philadelphia's plans to meet Clean Water Act requirements by changing the way it handles stormwater runoff as an example of how cleaning up the environment makes good business sense.

"That set up a market where the existing businesses that interface with the green storm water infrastructure industry are thriving and new business are sprouting up. We think the same thing can happen in the area of clean energy."

Nationally, the growth of wind power created 23,000 new jobs last year, and solar-power production now employs more people than does the mining industry.

Gauthier said global climate change is a direct result of the impact of business on the environment, and business must be part of the solution as well.

"It's reasonable to assume that if some of this came from the way that we were acting economically," she said, "that it can also be improved by acting in a different way economically."

In Pennsylvania, there already are more than 4,200 clean-energy businesses employing some 57,000 people.

The report is online at biz4climate.org.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

"Unsung Heroes" Need Senate Vote on Caregiver Bill - AARP

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

One-point-six million Pennsylvanians serve as unpaid family caregivers. (Jonathan Banks/flickr.com)
One-point-six million Pennsylvanians serve as unpaid family caregivers. (Jonathan Banks/flickr.com)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Advocates are asking the State Senate to pass a bill that would give those caring for family members at home some needed help, at no expense to the state. The CARE Act passed in the House last June, but so far the bill hasn't come to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Bill Johnston-Walsh, state director with AARP, says it would require hospitals to designate a family caregiver for patients while they're in the hospital.

"They'll notify the family caregiver that the loved one is going to be discharged," says Johnston-Walsh. "And it's going to require training of any medical task to be given to the family caregiver that they're going to be asked to perform at home."

Versions of the CARE Act, known as HB 1329, have been adopted in more than a dozen other states.

According to AARP, unpaid family caregivers in Pennsylvania provide an estimated 1.5 billion hours of care every year. Surveys indicate most older adults want to stay at home for as long as possible and as Johnston-Walsh points out, the alternatives are much more expensive.

"Once they go on Medicaid the state starts picking up the cost and it's much more expensive to keep them in a facility than to keep them at home," he says.

Family caregivers provide more than $19 billion worth of care in Pennsylvania every year.

Johnston-Walsh says it's time for the Senate to help those who make it possible for seniors to stay at home to get the help they need.

"We have 1.6 million caregivers in the state," he says. "And they're the unsung heroes that really need this legislation, the CARE Act, House Bill 1329, passed."

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

At Year’s End, Advocates Push for Renewal of Conservation Fund

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

The Land and Water Conservation Fund helps maintain the Allegheny National Forest. (Nicholas A. Tonelli/Wikimedia Commons)
The Land and Water Conservation Fund helps maintain the Allegheny National Forest. (Nicholas A. Tonelli/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Advocates are calling on Congress to permanently reauthorize a federal fund that supports parks, nature preserves and outdoor recreational facilities across the country.

Created in 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped fund projects in virtually every county in every state. But this fall Congress failed to reauthorize the fund. Gary Thornbloom, who co-chairs the Pennsylvania Sierra Club, called that failure "a broken promise."

"The fund was created as a promise to all Americans that a small - very small - portion of oil and gas royalties from offshore drilling would be invested back in America," he said.

Bills to reauthorize the fund have broad bipartisan support but have failed to clear a critical House committee.

Every year, up to $900 million from offshore oil and gas royalties have gone into the fund, which has provided almost $300 million for projects in Pennsylvania alone. According to Thornbloom, it has helped create and maintain everything from swimming pools to a 21,000-acre wildlife refuge.

"There's been Land Water Conservation Fund projects in the Allegheny National Forest, battlefields, the Flight 93 Memorial had some money involved, Gettysburg, local parks," he said.

Many projects combine Conservation Fund money with matching state and local grants, increasing the impact on local parks and recreational facilities.

A new bill to permanently reauthorize the program, HR 4151, was introduced Dec. 1 in the House. Thornbloom said that bill may be able to bypass the roadblock in the Natural Resources Committee.

"Republicans and Democrats have bought into a compromise, and that would have to go on to the appropriations bill," he said. "I think that's the only way it gets reauthorized in this session."

HR 4151 has gained the support of conservationists who call it a reasonable compromise and a viable path forward for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The bill is online at thomas.loc.gov.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Some Federal Dollars Released to PA Domestic-Violence Programs

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

The state budget impasse has meant the shelter system for domestic-violence victims in Pennsylvania has cut staff and services just to stay open. Credit: Dion Gillard/flickr.com
The state budget impasse has meant the shelter system for domestic-violence victims in Pennsylvania has cut staff and services just to stay open. Credit: Dion Gillard/flickr.com
HARRISBURG, Pa. - The state has been directed to release $1.4 million of federal money to programs for domestic-violence shelters.

The money was being held up in Harrisburg by the continuing budget impasse. More will be coming through the federal Victims of Crime Act.

Peg Dierkers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the infusion of cash will allow domestic-violence centers in the state to breathe a brief sigh of relief.

"Hopefully," she said, "with a combination of those two pots of federal money, they can keep those crisis services operating until the Legislature and the governor finally pass the total budget."

The federal funds are just part of the $11 million due for domestic-violence programs by the end of this month that have been held up in the budget stalemate.

With no money coming from the state for the past five months, almost all of the 60 domestic-violence centers in the state have had to curtail services. According to Dierkers, that has put lives at risk.

"For example, there's one program in south-central Pennsylvania that has had 200 people who were trying to escape violence in their homes," she said. "They had to turn them away."

She said programs around the state have been borrowing money and laying off staff to maintain some level of service to victims. The federal money will allow some shelters to make payroll for the month, but Dierkers predicted it won't last long.

"Clearly, at the beginning of 2016," she said, "if the budget still is not passed, we'll be back trying to piece together services and trying to keep things going."

She emphasized that domestic-violence victims anywhere in Pennsylvania still can find services through the coalition's website at PCADV.org.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Parents, School Districts Ask Court to Decide Lawsuit

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

A lawsuit claims Pennsylvania's school funding system is unconstitutional. Credit: ludi/pixabay.com
A lawsuit claims Pennsylvania's school funding system is unconstitutional. Credit: ludi/pixabay.com
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Education advocates are asking the state Supreme Court to hear their challenge to the state's school funding system. The state has filed papers asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit filed a yearago by parents and school districts.

Briefs from the legislature and the governor's office say school funding decisions are not a matter for judicial review.

Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center, disagrees.

"It's clearly not a political question and in fact a majority of states have considered these school funding cases and have rejected arguments that it presents a political question," says McInerney.

The lawsuit says the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund schools, and the current funding system violates the constitution's equal-protection clause.

Pennsylvania has the widest gap between funding for rich and poor school districts of any state in the nation. In past lawsuits, the court has said it couldn't decide if funding was adequate to meet educational standards because there was no way to assess whether students were meeting those standards.

McInerney says that's no longer the case.

"In 2015 it's clear that we do have judicially manageable standards," says McInerney. "We have mechanisms to assess how children are doing in school, what their academic outcomes are."

McInerney also points to a state study conducted in 2007 that found school funding fell far short of being adequate to meet academic standards set by the Legislature.

If the court determines the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligations, then McInerney believes it must order the state to adopt a system that will fulfill that mandate.

"A system that will maintain and adequately support public education across the Commonwealth," she says. "A system based on student need that would adequately fund all students to meet state standards."

The Supreme Court is expected to schedule oral arguments in the case in 2016.

One Step Toward Saving Child Health Program

Andrea Sears, Public News Servic

Almost 140,000 Pennsylvania children still have no health insurance. Credit: USCDCP/public-domain-images.com
Almost 140,000 Pennsylvania children still have no health insurance. Credit: USCDCP/public-domain-images.com
HARRISBURG, Pa. – A bill to reauthorize the state's Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, passed in the Pennsylvania House on Tuesday but unless the Senate acts, the program will expire on Dec. 31.

CHIP covers about 150,000 children whose parents make too much to qualify for Medicaid but can't afford private insurance.

Michael Race, vice president of communications with Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, says the vote in the House was an important step forward.

"The vote does give us optimism that this issue will be wrapped up by the end of the year, that the kids who currently benefit from CHIP will continue to benefit and that even more children will benefit in 2016," he states.

The House bill, HB 1633, would also move the CHIP program from the Insurance Department to the Department of Human Services, which also oversees the state's Medicaid program.

According to Race, the move will allow the state to apply what's called express lane eligibility.

"The state could go through records for state subsidized child care or the SNAP program and identify families who, based on income, could be eligible for CHIP or Medicaid and then reach out to those families," he explains.

Despite Pennsylvania's universal coverage policy, almost 140,000 children – about 5 percent of all children in the state – don't have health insurance.

Race maintains using existing state records to identify eligible children could be an important step toward reducing that number.

"In many cases families simply may not be aware that their child could be insured at no cost or at a very low, affordable cost," he points out.

There are currently two bills pending in the Senate that would reauthorize the Children's Health Insurance Program for another two years. In 2013 the reauthorization passed both houses by unanimous votes.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Legislation Would Chip Away Local Control of Schools

Andrea Sears, Public News Service
Bills in the General Assembly would put some schools under state control. Credit: Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons
Bills in the General Assembly would put some schools under state control. Credit: Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Education advocates say some legislators are trying to use the state budget impasse to push through bills that would diminish the control of local districts over their schools.

Senate Bill 6 even would put some schools under state control. Supporters of the bill say it would restore accountability to under-performing schools, but Susan Gobreski, director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, said accountability isn't the problem.

"The districts that would meet the current definition have a very high poverty rate, higher than average tax rate and experienced extraordinary funding cuts over the past few years," she said, "very little of which has been restored."

SB 6 and a bill in the House, HB 530, also would change the state's system for creating and governing charter schools.

Some provisions under consideration would allow the conversion of schools to charters without local input or remove caps on the number of students that could be enrolled. According to Gobreski, other provisions would make charters much less accountable to local districts.

"The creation of charter networks that would go under state control instead of local control," she said, "and there's some language that would suggest that charters could actually make unilateral changes to their own charters."

After five months without a budget, school districts are borrowing money to keep their doors open. Gobreski said she believes voters need to know what is on the table.

"We're playing a strong role in keeping an eye on what's happening in Harrisburg," she said, "and letting people know that this is in play, and that some legislators are looking at this opportunity to slip in this legislation."

More information is online at educationvoterspa.org. The text of Senate Bill 6 is here and HB 530 is here.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Groups Tell Philly Mayor No Changes to ICE Hold Policy

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Groups opposed to changes in Philadelphia's anti-deportation policy rallied at City Hall on Friday. Courtesy New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia
Groups opposed to changes in Philadelphia's anti-deportation policy rallied at City Hall on Friday. Courtesy New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia
PHILADELPHIA - Community groups and immigration advocates are telling Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to keep his hands off the city's anti-deportation ICE Hold policy.

The mayor says he wants to change the executive order that controls city cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Nicole Kligerman of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia says more than 75 groups signed a letter telling the mayor to leave that policy intact.

"The changes in the policy would mean that police and cities and jails would notify federal immigration officials about who was coming out of our local jails so that immigration could be waiting to deport them," says Kligerman.

The mayor's office says the changes would only apply to immigrants wanted for specific, violent crimes, drug trafficking or terrorism, and would still require a warrant.

Mayor-elect Jim Kenney has said he will immediately reverse any changes to the ICE Hold policy when he takes office in a few weeks. Kligerman thinks that calls the whole reason for making changes at all into question.

"This is an eleventh-hour political move that will only be in play for a couple of weeks, and we really believe that this is much more about Mayor Nutter's next job than about sound policy," she says.

Advocates say the changes contradict positive efforts Nutter has made on behalf of the city's immigrant community, including signing the executive order that created the ICE Hold policy.

In light of recent events, Kligerman says citing fears of terrorism as justification for the changes sends a disturbing message.

"That is playing into the anti-Syrian refugee language that's extremely harmful not just for this issue but other immigrant and refugee issues," she says.

On Friday, groups critical of the changes hand delivered their letter of opposition to Philadelphia's City Hall.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Calls for Banning Syrian Refugees Seen as Misguided

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Syrian refugees now entering the United States began the process in 2012. Credit: Voice of America News/Wikimedia Commons
Syrian refugees now entering the United States began the process in 2012. Credit: Voice of America News/Wikimedia Commons
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. - Following last week's terrorist attacks in Paris, at least 26 governors have said they won't allow Syrian refugees to resettle in their states but advocates say those fears are unfounded.

With millions displaced by civil war in Syria, President Obama wants the U.S. to accept 10,000 refugees in the coming year. Janet Panning, program director at the Lutheran Children and Family Service in Philadelphia, says only three percent of refugees are even considered for resettlement in the U.S. and those are then subjected to multiple security checks.

"This clearance process takes at least 18 months to four years. So the people that we're seeing coming in now are people that had started the clearance process in 2012," says Panning.

Once here, refugees are required to apply for a green card within one year, which initiates another series of background checks.

According to Panning, more than eighty percent of the refugees resettled by Lutheran Children and Family Service find jobs within four months of arrival.

"We're bringing in people that have immediate work eligibility and have fled their country, not because they didn't like it but because their neighbors turned on them or their government turned on them," she says.

The refugees she works with tell her they have two goals - educating their children and supporting their families.

In the wake of terrorist violence in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Panning says fear is understandable but it's important to remember refugees are also victims.

"All of us want to keep ourselves safe and at the same time our hearts go out to people that flee persecution and our hearts go out to people that are impacted by terrorism," she says.

Governor Tom Wolf has said Pennsylvania will continue to work with federal officials to resettle Syrian refugees.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

PA Tightens Controls on Smog-Causing Pollution

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Two-thirds of Pennsylvanians live in areas that fail to meet federal safeguards for smog pollution. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons
Two-thirds of Pennsylvanians live in areas that fail to meet federal safeguards for smog pollution. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons
HARRISBURG, Pa. - The Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board approved a new rule on Tuesday that will reduce smog-causing pollution from most coal-fired power plants, but gave one of the biggest sources a pass.

Nitrogen Oxide, or NOx, is particularly harmful to children, seniors and those with heart disease or respiratory problems. Tom Schuster, senior campaign director for the Sierra Club, explains the rule will require power plants that have pollution controls installed to actually use them.

"A lot of them had elected to meet regional pollution regulations by purchasing allowances rather than cutting their pollution at the source," says Schuster.

But the rule will not apply to the Brunner Island power plant, the largest source of NOx pollution in southeastern Pennsylvania, because it has not installed the equipment to reduce those emissions.

According to Schuster, that plant contributes to smog pollution in places as far away as Philadelphia.

"It has added pollution to already bad-air days," says Schuster. "And in some cases, even is the difference between an air quality action alert and a normal day."

Schuster says after the new rule goes into effect the Brunner Island plant will be the largest stationary source of NOx pollution in the state, by far. Besides allowing the plant to continue polluting the air, he believes the exemption sets a worrisome precedent.

"You're basically saying if you lag behind your peer sources in installing pollution controls, then you will be held to a weaker standard somewhere down the road," says Schuster.

The Sierra Club says about two-thirds of Pennsylvanians live in areas that currently fail to meet federal safeguards for smog pollution.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Pennsylvania Budget Impasse Hurting Seniors

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Without a state budget, nutrition programs like Meals on Wheels for Pennsylvania seniors are running out of money. Credit: U.S. Aair Force.
Without a state budget, nutrition programs like Meals on Wheels for Pennsylvania seniors are running out of money. Credit: U.S. Aair Force.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – The four-month budget impasse in Harrisburg is hitting services for seniors particularly hard. In some counties, state funds account for 80 percent or more of the budget for human services.

Ray Landis, director of advocacy for AARP Pennsylvania, says vital care for seniors is already being, and may stop completely.

"We are facing reductions in Meals on Wheels, closing and reduced hours at adult day centers," he says. "Those providing home-care services are starting to cut back on hours."

Landis says the meals many seniors receive through state-funded programs are their primary source of nutrition.

According to Landis, county human service agencies are doing all they can to keep aid going to the most vulnerable, including reaching out to families to take care of needs that can no longer be addressed as funds dry up.

"But some of these folks don't have families," he says. "It's a very dire situation for many individuals, and we're just starting to see the edge of it right now. It could become much worse, very quickly."

Some counties have already used up their reserves and are borrowing money, laying off staff and may still have to close senior centers.

AARP is among the groups urging the governor and state lawmakers to resolve the impasse as quickly as possible. Landis says there is more at stake than disagreements over political philosophy.

"We've got to look beyond that, and look to see how individuals are being impacted," he says. "We are trying to ensure that both the administration and general assembly recognizes this."

For some older Pennsylvanians, Landis says, the services they are in danger of losing are becoming a matter of life or death.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Pennsylvania Stalled in Efforts to Get Health Insurance to Children

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

The number of uninsured children declined 16 percent nationally in 2014. Credit: skeeze/pixabay.com
The number of uninsured children declined 16 percent nationally in 2014. Credit: skeeze/pixabay.com
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania did not keep up with national averages in reducing the number of children without health insurance last year.

A new study by Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children and Georgetown University's Center for Children and Families found that despite offering health-care to all documented children, the number of children without insurance declined only slightly to 5.2 percent. According to Mike Race, vice president for communications of Pennsylvania Partnerships, some other states did far better.

"One reason that is," he said, "is many of those states that have outpaced us chose to expand Medicaid in 2014 or earlier. Pennsylvania did not."

Nationally, the number of uninsured children fell by 16 percent in 2014, with some states achieving twice that amount.

Many people don't think of the Medicaid expansion as a children's issue. But according to Joan Alker, director of the Center for Children and Families, getting affordable health insurance to adults helps children, too.

"We know from past research that covering parents results in what we call a strong 'welcome-mat' effect for kids," she said. "That means when the parent learns about their own coverage opportunity, they may learn their child is also eligible."

The study found that children of the working poor and those living in rural areas are most likely to not have health insurance.

This year, Pennsylvania has expanded access to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. There are no statistics available yet on how that has helped, but Race believes it will make a significant difference.

"Based on what we've seen on other states that have had some time to watch Medicaid expansion take effect, we're optimistic that we're going to see a reduction in the number of uninsured children once those numbers become available."

Research shows that getting health insurance to children has far-reaching benefits, from improved school performance and graduation rates to better economic success as adults.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Single-Payer Health-Care Bill to be Introduced in PA

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

The Pennsylvania Health Care Plan would cover every resident of the state. Credit: Healthcare4ALL PA
The Pennsylvania Health Care Plan would cover every resident of the state. Credit: Healthcare4ALL PA
HARRISBURG, Pa. - A bill to create a single-payer health-care system in Pennsylvania will be introduced in the state Legislature by the end of the month.

The legislation is being introduced by Representative Pamela DeLissio of Philadelphia and was crafted with the assistance of HealthCare 4 ALL PA, a not-for-profit advocacy group. David Steil, past president of that organization, says the bill is simply called the Pennsylvania Health Care Plan.

"What it does is create a health-care system that includes every resident of Pennsylvania, that is publicly funded and privately delivered," says Steil.

The cost of the program would be covered by increased taxes, which Steil acknowledges may present a significant obstacle to passage by the state Legislature.

The plan would increase the state personal income tax by an additional three percent, substantially less than most pay for private insurance. It would also add a 10 percent payroll tax on businesses which, as Steil points out, is much less than what businesses spend on health insurance now.

"The average cost for health care benefits for companies that provide health care is about 17 percent of payroll," he says. "So at 10 percent of payroll, the saving is significant."

Similar legislation has been introduced in each legislative session since 2007.

Most recently it was introduced as Senate Bill S-400. None of the earlier versions have not gotten very far. Raising taxes is a hard sell, especially to conservative lawmakers. But Steil insists they're asking the wrong question.

"The question each one has to ask is not just 'look at the taxes' because there are taxes to it, it's not free," he says. "The question is, 'How much less than you're currently paying is this plan to you?'"

Steil says the bill would also eliminate health-insurance costs on pension plans and vehicle insurance, making the potential savings even larger.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

As State Budget Impasse Continues, Schools Go Deeper in Debt

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Without a budget, teachers may be asked to work without pay. Credit: Michelle Collins/ Wikimedia Commons
Without a budget, teachers may be asked to work without pay. Credit: Michelle Collins/ Wikimedia Commons
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania schools have received no state money since July, when the budget impasse began, but the bills keep piling up.

Schools in low-income districts are being hit hardest. Delores McCracken, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, recently was in Erie County, which may be forced to send students home if funds don't come through. The district superintendent told her it's not just a question of lessons that would be missed.

"His students qualify for breakfast served at school every day," McCracken said, "and what he said to me really hit hard. He said, 'I'm not getting any money. Am I supposed to stop feeding them?' "

According to a report by the Auditor General, school districts around the state had borrowed almost $350 million by the end of September to keep their doors open.

Many school districts have delayed paying vendors, some are considering closing one day a week to save on heating and lighting costs, and, as McCracken pointed out, teachers may go without paychecks.

"Our Chester Upland staff in Delaware County agreed to work without pay in August," she said, "and other districts are also thinking about asking their employees to work for IOUs. It's crazy."

In 2003, when there was another impasse, no budget was passed until December, when schools were on the verge of closing.

The money is there, but it's not getting to the schools, and McCracken said money from Pennsylvania sources aren't the only funds being withheld.

"There are also federal funds that are not being distributed," she said, "because when the federal funds come into Pennsylvania, they're put into the general fund. Without a budget, that money is not released to the school districts."

With no budget in place, the amount of state money withheld from school districts is expected to reach about $3 billion by the end of this month.

PA Revives Its Office of Environmental Justice

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

About 489 gas wells have been drilled in environmental-justice communities. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey/Wikimedia Commons
About 489 gas wells have been drilled in environmental-justice communities. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey/Wikimedia Commons
PITTSBURGH - The state Office of Environmental Justice finally is getting a new director, and fracking for natural gas will be on the agenda.

The office reviews the environmental impact of projects set for poor and minority communities, but it's been without a director for three months. Now, the Department of Environmental Protection says gas-drilling permit applications once again will trigger extra notification and community involvement in areas with few of the resources needed to say no.

That's good news to Larry Schweiger, president of the environmental group PennFuture.

"So now, putting that on the trigger list gives us an opportunity to know what's going on in advance," he said, "and hopefully those who are involved in agency decisions can step up and challenge bad choices."

Close to 500 wells have been drilled in environmental-justice communities - areas where 20 percent or more live in poverty, or 30 percent are people of color.

Schweiger pointed to studies showing that fracking can affect unborn children in communities close to drilling sites, and added that that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"We have the evidence now that fracking is a threat to residents," he said, "and it needs to be regulated to prevent those kinds of harm."

Just how effective the office will be remains a question. Under state law, environmental-justice concerns cannot be used as grounds to deny a gas drilling permit.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Big Premium Hike in Store for Many Medicare Recipients

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Nationally 7 million people on Medicare could see their premiums go up 52 percent in 2016. Credit: Bill Branson/Wikimedia Commons.
Nationally 7 million people on Medicare could see their premiums go up 52 percent in 2016. Credit: Bill Branson/Wikimedia Commons.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Medicare premiums could go way up for many seniors next year.

People who have Medicare Part B and are not receiving Social Security, or who have high incomes or are newly enrolled in the program, could see premiums 52 percent higher.

According to Ray Landis, advocacy manager for AARP of Pennsylvania, this will really hurt low-income people getting Medicare for the first time.

"Because suddenly they're looking at a $159 a month Medicare Part B premium when others who are already enrolled are paying $104 a month," he points out.

The increase would affect about one out of every seven people enrolled in Medicare. That's about 7 million people nationally.

Landis says the increase is so large because of a provision in the law that is meant to protect those who are already in the system from sharp increases.

"If those folks do not receive a Social Security cost-of-living increase, their Medicare premium cannot increase in that year," he explains.

Since no Social Security cost-of-living increase is expected in 2016, the entire burden of increased health care costs falls on those not covered by that provision of the law.

As Landis points out, the Part B premiums aren't the only cost borne by seniors on Medicare.

"Individuals who have a Part B premium also have to go out and buy a supplemental policy," he says. "That makes health care very expensive."

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey is proposing legislation to prevent such a large increase by putting more federal money into Medicare, but AARP says finding the funds to do that will be a challenge.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Budget Vote Could Shape Pennsylvania Education for Years

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Past cuts to school funding have hit poor school districts in Pennsylvania the hardest. Credit: Cole Stivers/Pixabay.
Past cuts to school funding have hit poor school districts in Pennsylvania the hardest. Credit: Cole Stivers/Pixabay.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – On Wednesday the state House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a package of revenue sources that could help restore past cuts to education funding.

Budget cuts imposed on education in 2011 have made educational inequality worse in the state.

According to Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, Pennsylvania now has the widest gap between rich and poor districts of any state in the nation.

"The revenue bill is not by itself the solution to our funding crisis," she says, "but it is a necessary step toward closing the gap between the wealthiest and poorest school districts."

Even if the revenue bill passes, it still doesn't guarantee that any increase in funds will go to education – that depends on passage of a budget bill.

Klehr says Pennsylvania's most vulnerable students, including those living in poverty, in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as English language learners, need the legislature to pass a budget that increases school funding.

"These are the students that have been hardest hit by funding inequality," she says. "We must ensure that new dollars are directed to these schools by restoring funds lost in the 2011 cuts and shift towards a fair funding formula."

Without new sources of revenue, the state will face a budget deficit next year of more than $2 billion, which advocates say could lead to more cuts to schools and human services.

In June, the state Assembly passed a budget that included a $100 million increase in education funding. According to Klehr, that amount is inadequate.

"We support the adoption of a budget that increases basic education funding by at least $410 million," she says, "and begin implementation of the new funding formula that was unanimously adopted by the Education Funding Commission."

As the budget impasse continues, schools are being forced to borrow money to keep their doors open, adding an additional $11 million in interest and other costs to their operating expenses for the year.

Friday, October 2, 2015

EPA Rules for Power Plant Wastewater Called Step Forward

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Heavy metals in power-plant wastewater can contaminate waterways. Credit: SusanUtley/morguefile.com
Heavy metals in power-plant wastewater can contaminate waterways. Credit: SusanUtley/morguefile.com
PITTSBURGH - Environmentalists are calling new rules for contaminated wastewater from coal-fired steam power plants a victory.

The rules finalized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week set the first limits on the levels of toxic metals in discharged water. The old rules, last updated in 1982, only covered particulate matter in the water.

Adam Garber, field director at PennEnvironment, said contamination can include a number of different toxic metals.

"It varies by power plant and the source of the coal," he said, "but it can range from barium and selenium to arsenic and can cause problems for the local waterways."

PennEnvironment still is reviewing the new rules. Garber said he believes they are a significant step forward toward protecting the environment, but added that more still needs to be done.

The intake of fresh water and the discharge of hot wastewater into the environment also needs to be addressed, Garber said.

"That thermal pollution, as it's known, can stress the aquatic life and cause significant damage," he said, "and has even been known to cause massive fish kills in these waterways."

According to the power industry, the new rules may force some older power plants to close. The industry may challenge the rules in court.

The EPA rule is online at epa.gov.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Critics: State Pension Bill Would Make New Hires Pay for Past Mistakes

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Negotiations on public employee pension reform remain stalled.  Credit: Ad Meskens/commons.wikipedia.org
Negotiations on public employee pension reform remain stalled. Credit: Ad Meskens/commons.wikipedia.org
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Gov. Tom Wolf this summer vetoed a bill that would have radically altered the public employees' pension fund, but Republican state senators say they're still committed to the bill.

Negotiations on a compromise remain stalled.

Economist Stephen Herzenberg, who heads the Keystone Research Center, says if adopted in its current form,Senate Bill 1 would hurt new hires to the state workforce.

"The Senate Republican pension proposal would give teachers, nurses and other public servants in Pennsylvania the lowest retirement benefits of any large public pension plan in the country," he stresses.

According to a Pension Primer prepared by the research center, even with improvements, SB 1 would cut benefits by up to two-thirds for career workers, leaving many with annual benefits of less than $10,000.

Herzenberg says college educated public employees already are being paid more than 25 percent less than their counterparts in the private sector.

"If you add to that retirement benefits that are lower than the private sector, why are you going to be able to attract good folks?” he asks. “Why are mid-career people going to stay?"

Some provisions of SB 1 would apply to current employees, but the biggest impact would be on pensions for people just entering the workforce.

Wolf has indicated a willingness to compromise on several issues in the current budget impasse, including pensions. But according to Herzenberg, so far the governor is holding firm on maintaining a pension fund that works for all state employees.

"When we get a pension compromise, it will be one that makes sense,” Herzenberg states. “It won't be one like SB 1 that would hurt taxpayers, public employees and state agencies."

The Keystone Research Center's analysis finds that despite the reduced benefits paid to public employees under SB 1, it would provide no meaningful savings to taxpayers.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Enviromentalists to EPA: Expand Methane Emission Rules

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Pennsylvania is the second largest natural gas producing state in the country. Credit: Ruhrfisch/Wikimedia Commons.
Pennsylvania is the second largest natural gas producing state in the country. Credit: Ruhrfisch/Wikimedia Commons.
PITTSBURGH – Proposed rules on methane emissions are a good start, but don't go far enough. That's the message from environmentalists to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In comments to the agency at a public hearing in Pittsburgh today, advocates say the rules as written would not apply to existing sources of methane. Rob Altenburg, director of PennFuture Energy Center, says Pennsylvania has thousands of gas wells in operation now.

"These new rules target only new and modified sources, so the vast majority of the wells in the state are not likely to be covered by these rules in the near future," he says.

Pennsylvania is currently the second-largest gas producing state in the country.

Jim Murphy, senior counsel with the National Wildlife Federation, says reducing methane emissions would do more than slow global climate change – it would also reduce ozone and other ground level pollution.

"You really get a two for one, you cut carbon emissions to help the climate, and then you also reduce localized pollution that harms wildlife and people who want to enjoy outdoor areas," he says.

In 2012 the federal government initiated measures to reduce methane emissions during the drilling process. Altenburg says the state can step in to control emissions the federal rules may miss.

"What we would like to see is the governor act aggressively to cover the thousands of wells and the thousands of sources that aren't being covered by these rules," says Altenburg.

The EPA has also held hearings on the proposed methane rules in Denver and in Dallas.

Thousands of Janitors Rally to Save Union Jobs

Andrea Sears, Public News Service
Commercial office cleaners in many eastern U.S. cities are currently negotiating new contracts. Courtesy: SEIU Local 32BJ.
Commercial office cleaners in many eastern U.S. cities are currently negotiating new contracts. Andrea Sears, Public News ServiceCourtesy: SEIU Local 32BJ.

PHILADELPHIA – As many as 2,000 janitors will converge on Philadelphia on Wednesday to rally for what they consider good jobs and fair contracts.

More than 75,000 office cleaners from Massachusetts to Virginia are bargaining for contracts this year. Juanita Acre, a member of local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), says good paying union jobs are in jeopardy.

"You got the real estate companies throwing our people out of their building and trying to make it non-union," she says. "This is contract time and it's Important to us to stop them."

The rally will be held outside of a luxury high rise where the union says new building management illegally displaced union workers.

According to Acre, union workers are making a living wage. But while rent on residential and commercial real estate keeps skyrocketing, developers in Philadelphia and other cities are trying to push workers back to minimum wage levels.

"We're making $16.44. Some are making a little more than that," she says. "They're trying to break us down to $7.25, $8.25, $9.25, with no benefit."

The union calls this the largest private sector contract negotiations taking place in the country, affecting the lives of nearly half a million men, women and children.

Acre says the janitors and commercial office cleaners have worked hard to make a decent living for themselves and their families.

"We just want to be part of the middle class," she says. "We're not going to accept anything less. And we think we have what we earned and they're trying to take it away. We're not going to accept that."

The union says fair contracts will go a long way toward addressing the growing income inequality condemned by Pope Francis during his visit to the U.S.

Monday, September 28, 2015

REGISTER NOW: Pennsylvania wind energy forum to lay out vision for growth in the state

Don't miss an opportunity to discuss the path forward for wind energy growth in Pennsylvania at the American Wind Energy Association's State Wind Energy Forum in Harrisburg on October 14.

See more info below or visit their event page here.

What: 
The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) will host a day-long forum to discuss the path forward for wind energy growth in Pennsylvania.


Who: 
John Hanger, Secretary of Planning and Policy, Pennsylvania

Larry Schweiger, President & CEO, PennFuture

Gladys Brown, Commissioner, Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission

Bruce Burcat, Executive Director, Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Coalition (MAREC)

Robert Frick, Senior Sales Manager, GE Power and Water

Dave Campbell, Associate Director, Environmental Protection Agency Region 3 Office

Rob Gramlich, Senior Vice President, Government & Public Affairs, AWEA

For a full list of speakers see: http://bit.ly/1L0jCMJ

When: 
Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET

Where: 
Penn State Harrisburg, 777 West Harrisburg Pike, Middletown, Pennsylvania

Wind energy industry leaders, state officials, and renewable energy advocates in Pennsylvania will join in a series of panel discussions and meetings to chart the path forward for wind power in the state.

The forum agenda is designed to appeal to a broad array of Pennsylvania wind stakeholders, including landowners, county officials, rural bankers, agricultural producers, policy makers, manufacturers, developers, educators, researchers, advocates, utilities, economic development specialists, energy specialists, government officials, analysts, and regulatory personnel.

John Hanger, Secretary of Planning and Policy for Pennsylvania, will be kick things off as the opening plenary speaker at 8:30 a.m. ET. Larry Schweiger, President and CEO of PennFuture will be the keynote speaker, delivering remarks at noon.

The AWEA State Wind Energy Forum – Pennsylvania is the third state forum AWEA has hosted this year. Previous events this year were held in Montana and Michigan.

Today, wind power supports 2,000 jobs in Pennsylvania and has attracted $2.7 billion dollars in capital investment to the state’s economy. Pennsylvania is a wind manufacturing leader with 29 factories supporting well-paying jobs throughout the state. With 1,340 MW of installed wind capacity in the state, wind energy currently supplies 1.6 percent of Pennsylvania’s in-state electricity production.

Pennsylvania has the technical wind resource potential to meet 88 percent of the state’s current electricity potential, using current technology and 110 meter hub heights.

Pennsylvania passed an Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS) in 2004, requiring electricity suppliers to supply 18 percent of their sales from alternative energy sources by 2021. Wind energy has historically been the renewable resource chosen to meet renewable standards requirements, fulfilling 86 percent of RPS requirements through 2011 and driving economic development in the state as a result.
  
American wind power supplies more than 25 percent of the in-state electricity production for Iowa and South Dakota. Department of Energy data show wind power is the fifth largest electricity source in the U.S. providing electricity to power the equivalent of 18 million average American homes. Over 73,000 jobs are supported by wind energy and more than 500 factories in 43 states produce parts and supplies for wind. Over $100 billion dollars in private investment has been attracted to the U.S. economy by growing new wind farms.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Pope's Visit Shines Spotlight on Prisons

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Pope Francis also has visited prisoners in Italy and Bolivia. Credit: Benhur Arcayan/commons.wikimedia.org
Pope Francis also has visited prisoners in Italy and Bolivia. Credit: Benhur Arcayan/commons.wikimedia.org
PHILADELPHIA - Pope Francis will visit a Philadelphia prison Sunday, drawing attention to mass incarceration and the need for criminal-justice reform.

Philadelphia pioneered prison reform as early as the 18th century. Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which was founded in 1787, said the papal visit will help open the door on what has traditionally been a closed system, "looking at what are the best practices across the world, what does make the most sense, and bringing that element of humanity right into the prisons as he visits."

The pope will visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Philadelphia's largest prison, with beds for up to 3,000 inmates. More than half of those held in the facility have not been convicted of a crime but can't afford bail while they await trial.

With more than 2 million people behind bars, the United States has the largest prison population in the world. Schwartzman said she believes that the entire criminal-justice system needs to be examined.

"We need to look at sentencing, who we're incarcerating, conditions inside when people are incarcerated," she said, "and we really need to look at what we're doing to help people when they come back out."

Last July, President Obama visited a federal prison in Oklahoma as part of his efforts to call attention to the need for criminal-justice reform.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Local progressive advocates launch campaign to welcome the Pope’s message of economic justice

For Immediate Release

Contact: Mike Morrill, Keystone Progress Education Fund
             Tara Murtha, Women’s Law Project
             Leah Chamberlain, Philadelphia Women’s Center

#FrancisLoveMeToo

Local progressive advocates launch campaign to welcome the Pope’s message of economic justice—and call for real policy solutions
Philadelphia- As you may have heard by now, Pope Francis is coming to Philadelphia this week.

We’ve watched in fascination as the former nightclub bouncer from Buenos Aires now known as Pope Francis—“part rock star, part diplomat and part politician,” according to the New York Times—has shifted the conversation about and within the Roman Catholic Church by preaching compassion, mercy and tolerance.

He even criticized the Church for “putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized.” Turns out, listening to and ministering to the poor and advocating for economic justice is a popular message: Not only do 85% of American Catholics approve of Pope Francis, but seven out of ten Americans as a whole.

As advocates for economic justice and reproductive rights, we are welcoming the Pope to Philadelphia by extending the conversations he is starting around issues of poverty and family, and discussing real solutions, under the banner #FrancisLovesMeToo.

We invite you to join us as we explore Pope Francis’ message of mercy and economic justice for struggling families, something we need here in Pennsylvania and especially Philadelphia, a city with the highest rate of deep poverty, where children are routinely ravaged by the effects of poverty and trauma, and women suffer the highest rate of maternal mortality in the country.

We are a community of advocates who fight to see the values espoused by Pope Francis reflected in the state Legislature and our communities. Economic justice and equality are not possible without possible without equal access to reproductive healthcare including contraception and abortion, support for working mothers, and eliminating discrimination.

We will be posting about the status of families in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania all week, and highlighting opportunities for policies to reflect the values being discussed.  

Throughout the week, we invite you to contact us for comment from experts on related issues, such as: reproductive justice, workplace discrimination, poverty as a risk factor for sexual violence, equal pay, contraception, abortion, LGBTQ discrimination, working mothers, healthcare access, the cost of mass incarceration, and raising the minimum wage.

Like www.facebook.com/francislovesmetoo to stay up-to-date on messages from Pennsylvania advocates working to replace discriminatory “family values” rhetoric in Pennsylvania with policies that actually value families: traditional families, modern families, LGBTQ families, poor families, our families, and yours.

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Seniors Rally to Support Family Caregiver Bill

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Family members in Pennsylvania provide care for loved ones worth an estimated $19.2 billion annually. Courtesy: AARP.
Family members in Pennsylvania provide care for loved ones worth an estimated $19.2 billion annually. Courtesy: AARP.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Seniors rallied in the Capitol Rotunda this morning, urging senators to pass the Caregiver Advise, Record and Enable Act (CARE).

Currently, 1.6 million Pennsylvanians are serving as unpaid caregivers for family members. According to Desiree Hung at AARP Pennsylvania, the bill would help ensure that older adults who have been hospitalized get the continuing care they need once they are released.

"They can identify a caregiver who would take care of them once they leave," she says. "And it would provide some training for the caregiver, so that person could care best for their loved one."

The CARE Act passed the House in June with only one dissenting vote, and has been adopted in more than a dozen other states. Hung says AARP is confident the Pennsylvania Senate will pass the bill as well.

She adds they are also asking lawmakers to ensure caregivers have access to home care and adult daycare resources, and to fund additional support with state lottery proceeds.

"People want to stay in their homes as long as possible, and supporting programs to build up home- and community-based care would certainly go a long way to helping people do that," says Hung.

It's estimated family caregivers in Pennsylvania provide more than 1.5 billion hours of unpaid assistance for loved ones every year.